‘“Why is such importance attached to identification cards? Since when do papers determine people’s fate?” Yussif still kept these words, which Uncle ‘Assim had once said, in his mind. Where could he now find his father-in-law, in order to be able to contradict him: “Yes, papers do determine people’s fates.” For years he had tried to rely on Uncle ‘Assim’s words. Now he had voiced what he had been frightened of all those years: that remembering would one day awaken, and he would become abruptly aware of how vain of his argument was. “Who carries whose guilt?” He carried this phrase with himself, since he had eaten and watched television together with Uncle ‘Assim , in this house in the Baladiyat Quarter, to which Sarab moved back to live with her father. For a long time he had pushed it into the back of his subconscious. Only from time to time this phrase appeared, in the last year continuously and since last night ever more strongly and urgently.
If people had their past paraded before their eyes, they disavowed it. If someone showed them documents carrying their names, they said: “Are there any people without a past?” This question was not easy to answer. “Oh past, what have you made of my life?” He could imagine how millions of men constantly repeated this phrase everywhere in the world, in east and west, north and south. Always there was a past; it was the hindrance. Whoever adopted a new name, also adopted a new past. No, this question was not as easy to answer as Uncle ‘Assim had thought. He who did not believe in the past would also not believe in the evidential power of documents. He who carries a document with him, must therefore be X, son of Y, he was born on this date, in this place, in this country; he has to add to the document the following phrase: “Who carries whose guilt?” Tell me your name, and I will tell you which history you carry with you, which history you have left behind you – or want to leave behind you.’
Iraq has just about the longest literary history of any country in the world, but I’m ashamed to say that the only other book I had read from there was from right at the other end of its timeline – the wonderful Epic of Gilgamesh. I read this one in German as, although it has apparently been translated into English, I found it hard to get. It was originally published Beirut/Casablanca, 2005, in Arabic. Anyway it’s appropriate as the author has lived in Germany for a long time. Najem Wali (نجم والي) was born in Iraq but in 1980 had to flee during the war with Iran to Germany, where he has lived ever since.
You won’t find much local Iraqi colour in this work; its themes are universal, although you could see the brothers’ identity and existential crisis as symbolic of the plight of this cradle of civilisation, which at the time of my reading was tearing itself apart and barely still existed. One of the continual refrains in the book (another is the description of the murdered girl) is the characterisation of the country as ‘The Land of the Triumphant and the Humiliated.’ Hopefully it won’t all end in a madhouse.
Wali asks the eternal question, ‘What’s in a name?’, but comes to a different conclusion from Shakespeare: Quite a lot. Here is a whole book’s worth. It is the story of two brothers, Jussif (Joseph) and Junis (John), who when they were young fell in love with the same girl. She preferred Jussif, so in revenge Junis gave her a cake with nails inside to eat and killed her. Junis opposes Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and disappears; Jussif adopts his name, identity, life and even wife. He only discovers too late that his brother is sought as a traitor. No one will believe his story, or his innocence. A dangerous struggle over names and identities follows. Even as kids, the brothers had played with their identities, with masks.
Yussif and Yunis are, of course, Koranic (and Biblical) names. (The Qur’an has surahs (chapters) named for both of these names). It is a complicated parable about names, identity, the past, and… Just what is reality?
For someone fascinated with translation, it’s interesting that the title in Arabic, s̪urat Yussif (صورت يوسف) ‘the Picture of Joseph’, which must be a play on the Koranic connection Surat Yussif (The Surah – Chapter – of Joseph) (سورت يوسف) has been cleverly translated into German not as ‘Jussifs Geschichte’ (Joseph’s Story) but as the almost identical-sounding ‘Jussifs Gesichter’ (Joseph’s Faces). For ‘Jussif’ (the name) has two faces – those of the two brothers who bear it at different times. The English title is ‘Joseph’s Picture’ (ISBN 978-1596923508), which is literal but not as imaginative as the German title.
Yussif asks the central question, ‘Who carries whose guilt?’ You are a prisoner of your past; if you adopt a new persona, you adopt a new past as well. He is totally alienated from the world. There is no truth and there is no past. Everything is a mirage (Fata Morgana). In fact, everything is a story.
A major theme is remembering and forgetting: ‘With the end of remembrance, pain comes to an end as well.’ Maybe, at least in some parts of the world, there is too much remembering, and it would be more peaceful if there was more forgetting, at least of the blandishments of history? But these separate histories are too much a part of each community’s identity for that to be able happen.
Wali’s novel is a dark, thought-provoking, well-written, exhausting and profound parable that deserves a much wider audience.
Wali, Najem (1956 – ), Jussifs Gesichter, Roman aus der Mekka-Bar, translated from Arabic to German by Imke Ahlf-Wien, Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, München, 2010, ISBN 978-3-423-13850-5, [originally published in Arabic as Surat Yussif (صورت يوسف)]
Light from the burning city filled the sky as far as human eye could reach. The moon rose large and full from behind the mountains, and inflamed at once by the glare took on the colour of heated brass. It seemed to look with amazement on the world-ruling city which was perishing. In the rose-coloured abysses of heaven rose-coloured stars were glittering; but in distinction from usual nights the earth was brighter than the heavens. Rome, like a giant pile, illuminated the whole Campania. In the bloody light were seen distant mountains, towns, villas, temples, mountains, and the aqueducts stretching toward the city from all the adjacent hills; on the aqueducts were swarms of people, who had gathered there for safety or to gaze at the burning.
I found it surprisingly hard to decide what to read for Poland! Finally I defaulted to Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), who justly won the 1905 Nobel Prize for Literature. Quo Vadis (Latin for ‘Where are you going?’) is his best-known work, except perhaps in Poland itself, where his trilogy on 17th Century Polish history, With Fire and Sword, is more famous.
Now normally I try to choose a novel which will teach me as much as possible about the country it represents here. This majestic tale of the Roman Empire under the emperor Nero (in the first few years of the Christian Era) might seem to have nothing to say about Poland, which didn’t even exist at the time (and was one part of Europe which the Empire never reached), but you can see the persecution of the early Christians as a symbol of the suffering of this most Catholic of countries under the boots of its surrounding empires. Like the Christians under the Roman Empire, the Poles have had to fight long and hard to maintain their distinct culture, language and religion under constant occupation (or threat) by their neighbours, and have miraculously succeeded.
The main characters are the true-life novelist and courtesan (and finally victim) of Nero, Petronius, who seems able to control him for a time; the mad mercurial emperor himself who is infamous for having set his city alight and blaming the Christians for his crime; and the fictional young lovers Lygia and soldier Marcus Vinicius – she converts him to Christianity. If you know anything about Roman or early Christian history you know that this is not going to end well…
You get a fine feeling for the precariousness of life lived under a dictatorship (or even democracy?) under the whims of a demented despot, even for those close to the source of power. Perhaps not so irrelevent to our times after all? What a pity that this great, majestic work isn’t read enough any more.
SIENKIEWICZ, Henryk (1846 – 1916), Quo Vadis: a tale of the time of Nero, translated by Jeremiah Curtin, Mineola NY, Dover, 2011, ISBN 978-0-486-47686-5 (originally published in Polish 1896)